NIU Education Leader Sees Lack Of Diversity

Jun 26, 2014

A Northern Illinois University educator wants to help schools close the achievement gap among students of different cultures. Part of the solution involves attracting more teachers from diverse backgrounds into the profession. Dr. La Vonne Neal, dean of NIU's College of Education, has co-authored a book aimed at that goal.

La Vonne Neal
Credit NIU


Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Preparing and Retaining Highly Effective Teachers comes in response to President Obama's executive order calling for improving educational outcomes for African-Americans, Neal says.

Neal draws her interest in the subject from her experiences in the military, corporate world, and classroom.

Her past research includes analyzing a correlation between African American male students' walking styles and their placement in special education classes.

She says the lack of diversity in the modern education system can be traced to the Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which declared segregation in schools unconstitutional.

She doesn't debate the importance of integrating students, but she says it led to some unintended consequences.

"Before Brown, black students attended their own schools that were operated mostly by skilled and experienced and dedicated educators of color who lived in the same communities as their students," Neal said.

"With the passage of Brown v. Board, there were massive layoffs and demotions of teachers of color. Here we are, the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the students outcomes are worse now than pre-Brown v. Board." 

"Social cultural behaviors that are misunderstood are perceived as deficits.  My contention is that different does not mean deficit." - Dr. La Vonne Neal

The book finds, "teachers in the White mainstream who have not questioned their assumptions may not realize the impact their own backgrounds and perceptions have on the educational experiences of their students."  Neal says examples are not too difficult to find in current classrooms.

"In a communal setting, which is replicated in communities of color, it's 'each one, teach one.'

"The classroom of yesterday, regrettably, is still today in terms of the way it visually looks -- rows. That's not communal. So when you infuse a culture that has always been communal into rows, and you do it by yourself, then most of your time is spend re-directing and not teaching critical thinking."

Neal says, in addition to creating an environment that is more culturally aware, there should be opportunities to create a teacher pipeline, "because one has to be able to aspire to be a teacher."

"If you see very few teachers who look like you, then you really don't see that as a viable field," she added.

Neal says the first step to achieving lasting improvement in multi-cultural education is for teachers and administrators to admit they don't have a grasp of what it is. 

Neal calls the process a "journey" for many educators. She says that was definitely the case when she came to NIU four years ago.

"They didn't look at the data [on student achievement] as an indictment which, sometimes, that's what we all do," Neal said.

"What they were able to do is say, 'It's all about the scholars and sparking genius,' and, 'In my mind, I think I'm doing that,' but the data sets are clear. They can say, 'When I went through my teacher prep program in 1980 or 1990, I did not know what multi-cultural education was. Now that I know what it is, now that I look at the data sets, I am going to find out what I can do differently. Re-tooling."

The book includes mention of NIU's blueprint for educating future teachers about working in diverse classrooms. That plan includes urban neighborhood tours for students, a social justice film series, and clinical assignments where students stay with host families outside of their own race.

The book will be released in August. Co-authors are Christine Sleeter of California State University Monterey Bay and Kevin Kumashiro with the University of San Francisco.